The Gomperz Family and the return of the book seller

Michael Cahn stepped off the red eye from LA, spent the day in his bookshop then cycled to our house looking somewhat dishevelled. He earned his keep last year by sponsoring us to do a triathlon in aid of the Campaign for Female Education. Little did he know what we had in store for him on this visit.

After the death of my father, and my mother’s move to a care home in Cambridge, my sister and I began the task of clearing our family home. Amongst the myriad of possessions were some 200 copies of a book – The Gomperz Family originally published in 1907. The work was started  by the historian Dr David Kaufmann and completed after his death by his colleague Dr Max Freudenthal. Kaufmann was the son-in-law of Rosa Gomperz who lived in Vienna.  The book traces the history of the Gomper/t/s/z family from the time of their earliest settlement in Germany in around 1550 and follows their diaspora over three centuries from Berlin, Frankfurt, Metz, Vienna, Prague, Holland and England.

My father, Bastien, was made aware of this book by David Gompertz, a colleague at University College London. It was written in academic German and since neither of them were German speakers, they arranged for a couple of the chapters to be translated. It became apparent that this was a significant work concerning not just a history of a family, but a history more broadly, of the Jews of northern Europe. Such an extensive genealogy going back so far and so wide is very unusual. What is more, only a hand full of copies of the original survived the second world war. So it was an important task to have it translated into accessible English, printed and made available once more. Bernard Standring (Centre for European Languages and Cultures, University of Birmingham) undertook the translation as a retirement project and Bastien, who was so impressed and excited by the text, personally funded the publication which rolled off the press in 2003.

At this time, the internet had grown to a sufficient size to make searching for Gomperz family members a profitable task. Bastien set about contacting as many as he could and he invited them all to our house in London to launch the book.

The book is an academic treatise on the first court Jews of Northern Europe. In addition to being a detailed genealogical history of a family, it is also a considered history of perilous but extraordinary Jewish achievement in relation to land, money and royal power. The Gomperz family also later played a significant role in the Jewish enlightenment, indeed Bastien was chuffed to learn that he was a cousin, seven times removed of no less than Felix Mendelssohn! The modern family were largely wiped out of Holland and Germany by Hitler. David Gomperts, Bastien and Earnest Gompertz, who knows most about Gomperz genealogy today in Holland, added illustrations including photographs of the later Dutch Gompertz family members who carried the name from the 19th into the 20th Century.

Natasha and I are now looking to disperse the book. Our friendly book seller offered, with out persuasion, to handle the distribution via Plurabelle. We are selling the books for £24 plus postage and packaging. £12 of this will be donated to Safe Passage, a charity that provides legal routes to sanctuary to refugees.

You can buy your copy of The Gomperz Family here:

A review of the book by Ellen Barman can be found on the Amazon website here.








A year on…almost

A couple of weekends ago, before my eldest and my sister’s older two dispersed for university, our families gathered, and together with Colin and our mother Zerin, went to visit Bastien’s grave at the South Downs Natural Burial Site. Part of our mission was to put up the beautiful Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired bird box that Colin had made in Bastien’s workshop.

Last time

This visit was in stark contrast to our previous one. Last time was a cold, wet November day when around sixty of us travelled down the A3 to see the wicker basket that carried my father gently lowered into the chalk. Friends and family spoke warmly, Bastien’s youngest grandson played the fiddle, his oldest sang. Peter Lloyd Jones has kindly made his heart felt eulogy available and you can read it here.

Tears flowed and mixed in with the rain. We cheered up afterwards in a pub. The journey back was bad for most and appalling for others. There was a pile up on the A3; some of our party did not get back to London until well after midnight. IMG_0955DSC_1699_2IMG_5584_2

This time

This time was a gloriously warm and sunny day in September. Our visit started with a fabulous lunch in the South Downs Sustainability Centre’s cafe. The young chef did us proud and whipped up a selection of lovely dishes – caramelised onion tarts, stilton and chutney sandwiches and delicious vegetable quiche – washed down with local ale and followed by coffee and home made cakes. Of course there were were feelings of sadness and loss, but the overwhelming, clawing, anxiety that had gripped me before did not surface. DSCF5446 IMG_9886

Finding the spot

The Sustainability Centre offered us the use of their mind-of-its-own electric wheel chair providing Zerin with the means to get down the valley and the rest of us with no end of laughs. The battery, needless to say, did not last the course. The machine had to cross the best part of a couple of kilometres over quite rough terrain. On arrival at the end of the path, our youngest was dispatched up a tree to survey the land and identify the position of Bastien’s plot. DSCF5504We found him and set about clearing the weeds and decorating his grave. Bastien acquired a new spine, a good, strong one fashioned out of flints. No more crumbling bones for this man!DSCF5494As the day turned to evening, we pushed Zerin back up the hill, clambered into the cars and  headed home.

Final resting place

I feel a great sense of ownership of the forest where Bastien lies. Zerin will join him in time, right on top of him as it happens. Dementia prevents her from understanding quite what this means, but I think she would be happy with the knowledge if only it would stick. Perhaps I will book a place for myself. It does not matter that it is so far from home. What matters is that the family will have a lovely place to gather and to play. Hey kids, come dance on my grave!


Life behind a camera

Something my sister said last weekend got my goat.  We were hosting a combined celebration, our mothers 80th birthday and our father’s memorial. We were talking about our parental legacy. Amongst other things, the list included home made meringues, mayonnaise, marmalade and strawberry jam, long distance walking and, here we go, photography.

First camera

I got my first camera in 1972 for my eighth birthday. To my shame, I cannot recall what make it was, but my father picked it up second hand from a shop on Tottenham Court Road. It had a fixed lens and came in a leather case that had a lovely smell. I still have the black and white prints somewhere. I am intrigued to find them and see what caught my 8 year old eye.

That first camera was relatively short lived; it broke. I don’t think I was irresponsible with it. It was an old apparatus and my father was cautious not buy a more expensive piece of kit that I might lose interest in. However, I did not and it was quickly replaced. He next got me a second hand AGFA Silette, which had an orange shooting button. With this camera I moved to colour. It came with me  on a family trip to my mothers birthplace in Madagascar, in 1976 (note to self – scan the prints!)

First SLR

When I was 16 my father took my sister and I to Tecno’s on Tottenham Court Road and bought us both AV1s, semi automatics. He had been invited to attend a scientific conference in Hawaii. He planned to take us with him and walk Kalalau Cliff path. For that we needed cameras (note to self, find these shots). She got a zoom, I got a 50mm and a couple of years later, a 24mm.

The 24mm was a particularly special present. I had been sailing on the fated square riggers, Marques and Inca. We were due to sail through Tower Bridge at the beginning of a circumnavigation of the British Isles and my father had planned to cycle over to see me before we set sail.

Time and tide wait for no man and this unfortunately was the case that day. We were already mid Thames by the time my father arrived and our chance of a farewell or bon voyage was dashed. What I did not know was that he was carrying the gift of a wide angle lens. Having missed the boat, he packaged it up and sent it to me  c/o The Harbour Master, Portsmouth. We docked there a few days later and the parcel was duly delivered.

Below is a selection of photos I took on that voyage. I used Kodak slide film and enlarged and printed (using Cibachrome) in the down stairs loo at home which doubled as a dark room.

It took a little while but I got quite used to being aloft. We did not use harnesses. One of my tasks was to paint the button, the very top most part of the mast, without spilling a drop. It was another kind of recklessness that destroyed the dream that these boats engendered. The sad story of the demise of these two extraordinary vessels can be found in Tall Ships Down, The last Voyages of the Pamir, Albatross, Marques, Pride of Baltimore, and Maria Asumpta by Daniel Sargent Parrott.

Square rigger 17

039 copy

040 copy

016 copy

045 copy 034 copy

Square rigger 20


FSQ and the Out Hear! Festival @KingsPlace

AbsoluetelyOn Sunday 19 Jan, Kings Place hosted a the first of a series of concerts in the Out Hear! programme that explores electronics, classical compositions and acoustical elements from leading and upcoming artists within the world of contemporary music. There was a excellent turn out for a winter afternoon, a warm hearted gathering of friends, admirers and the intrigued. The concert attracted a diverse crowd; the oldest being close to 100 years of age, and the youngest, just a day shy of 11. One member of the audience had travelled all the way from San Diego. That is dedication!

The concert was based around three current recording projects of the Fitzwilliam String Quartet. They kicked off with the beautiful and emotionally exuberant first quartet of geologist John Ramsay, written in 2001, inspired by Bartok and folk music of Eastern Europe. This was followed by a fantastic duet for solo violin and live electronics called Iridaceae written in 2002 by Liz Johnson. The piece used 8 speakers around the auditorium to expand the sound of the violin, granulise, pitch shift and multiply 99 times the violin ‘voice’. Wonderful echo’s and undulations were generated as the piece progressed. The music describes the unfurling of Iris petals and the journey from life to death.

The second half included two pieces for saxophone and string quartet, Fantasia 1, Epiphany composed in 2009 and ABSOLUTELY!, composed in 2008, a musical meditation on purity, unselfishness, honesty and love both by Uwe Steinmetz. These pieces are a fabulous blend of jazz and classical music playing. Reviews of the recently released CD can be found here.

Hospital Appointments and Patient No Shows


A year ago I took my father to hospital for endoscopy. He had been diagnosed with anaemia over and above a chronic disease known as Churg Strauss Syndrome. He had been referred for endoscopy to check if he might be bleeding into his bowl even though he had no bowl symptoms.

My father stressed about the appointment. He worried about the special diet he had to follow in the days leading up, and also about caring for my mother (who has dementia) on the day of the procedure.

In the event, it all went well. I met him at the other end so to speak, and he was on good form. The doctor showed us a movie of his insides and told us that there was the odd polyp that he had removed and that were normal for his age and condition, but that there was no evidence of bleeding. This was all good news but left the question standing. What was the cause of the anaemia?

Testing Patience

Months went by. My parents had other health difficulties. My mother fell in the street in May and broke her arm at the elbow. It was two weeks before the break was recognised and she was put into a cast. Living with someone with dementia is tough at the best of times, the sufferer needs to be fed, watered, washed, dressed, toileted, exercised and entertained. But when the person also has a fiberglass cast from their fingers to their shoulder, and the carer is in their late 70s, frail, anaemic and feeling at a low ebb, it all gets a whole lot worse.

Faith in the NHS

By September there had been no progress on the anaemia. My sister and I encouraged our father to put pressure on his GP and even suggested that he see private doctor. But with all his other difficulties and his utter faith in the health service, the situation remained stagnant.

Eventually it was revealed that his referral had been lost but that an appointment had now been made for the long awaited follow up. He was to have a second investigation this time in his upper alimentary canal even though there were still no symptoms. The proposal was to use one of the new “pill’ cameras. He was pretty excited about this and on a visit to the Wellcome Collection on 15 Sept we actually saw one and marvelled at it.


By now my father had a strange breathlessness and he was given iron intravenously and told it would take a couple of weeks before the effects would be felt. An appointment with a haemotologist was booked and a routine blood sample indicated possible myeloid dysplasia. He was then given his first blood transfusion and an appointment was booked for 8 October at the Macmillan Cancer Centre.

By mid September he was pretty unwell and was admitted to UCLH with pleurisy. He was given intravenous antibiotics and was discharged the following week.

On 21 September, despite his health, we had a family lunch in London. My father was definitely perkier and managed to upset my daughter who, in typical teen fashion, refused to rise to the challenges he set. On 26 September he called an ambulance and was admitted to the acute medical ward at UCLH.

Final email sent just as he was about to leave home for the last time.

From: “Gomperts, Bastien” <>

Subject: Re: Bedales Reunion

Date: 26 September 2013 20:14:00 GMT+01:00

To: [deleted]


sadly noy. uch better though I think that the infection has probably cleared. But nou well. here commes the ambulance.

Give me ca call soon.



Beginning of the End

I visited my father in hospital on 27 Sept. We went for a walk on the neighbouring streets, he in his PJs. We looked at the sculpture in the Macmillan Cancer Centre and he fretted about the up coming appointment and what that might bring. The prospect of regular blood transfusions was on the horizon, and he knew that this would mark the beginning of his end, although neither of us thought this was imminent. A neighbor had survived several years on such a regime.

Life support

On 2 October my father was gasping for breath and early that morning was admitted to intensive care. The situation was desperate. He was sucking hard on an oxygen mask. Bursitis in his hips meant there was no comfortable position. His temperature was rocketing and he was sweating profusely. The decision was taken to put him on a ventilator. The life support machine was torturous. His blood was checked and it was immediately apparent that his profile of cells was far from normal. Over the following days, he was given one transfusion after another. By 11 October 2013 he was dead.

Three months on

Despite having completed the UK government tell us once form, that informs all departments of the death of a citizen, we have received a stream of post from the NHS regarding hospital appointments for my father since he died.

He had inappropriate investigations and waited too long for follow up. He can now be found 6 feet down in the chalk at the South Downs Natural Burial Ground. The NHS might as well direct their letters to him there. There is not much chance of this patient showing up!

First concert of 2014 at Kings Place

8659877My father Bastien (view his Guardian obit here), was a great supporter of the Fitzwilliam String Quartet and they regularly rehearsed and performed in my parents London home.

The Quartet are playing their first concert of the year on 19 Jan 4pm at Kings Place as part of the ‘Out Hear‘ programme.

The concert will fuse jazz, classical, folk, and electronic music, featuring original compositions by Uwe Steinmetz, Liz Johnson, and Bastien’s great friend, the geologist John Ramsay. The concert will celebrate the release of the recording Absolutely! You can listen to a sample of the music here.

Also included in the concert, will be a short piece written especially for Bastien by Uwe.

Tickets can be booked on line

Later in the year the quartet are performing in Andover, Oxford, Cambridge, Hay on Wye, Cardiff, Newton Abbott, Gloucester, Allendale as well as many concerts in and around London. Here is their schedule of performances.